The sprawling industrial corpse of the old Zhènchāng Wood Company Plywood Factory 振昌木業公司合板廠 can be found haunting the outskirts of Chēchéng 車埕1 — a small village in Nántóu County 南投縣 nestled deep within the mountainous spine that bisects the island of Taiwan, and once the central hub around which an extensive and thriving timber industry revolved before it’s sudden decline during the mid-1980s.
After wandering through the bustling, heavily touristic centre of the village I descended on this less well-advertised attraction — though if you were expecting the grounds of a long-derelict factory to be devoid of visitor activity — think again. To accommodate the swarms of tourists that descend on Checheng of a weekend (myself totally included), large sections of the plywood plant (including one of the cavernous warehouses) have been adapted as overflow parking for when the small lot adjacent the station inevitably chokes up, resulting in a steady stream of both foot and road traffic constantly entering and exiting the area. Not exactly the solitary wander I’d envisioned, although it did make it fairly effortless to slip unnoticed into the more interesting sections to get up close and personal with the dusty innards of Zhenchang’s ‘unofficial’ museum.
Opened in 1972, the plant seems to have been somewhat multi-purpose, manufacturing not just the plywood boards themselves, but also furniture such as desks, chairs and cabinets; in addition to wood treatment chemicals synthesised within its own purpose-built laboratory. Inside the extant buildings, processing lines and materials still remain in situ, frozen in positions determined over 30 years previous. It really is as if, at the end of the last working day, everyone just downed tools, went home, and subsequently forgot about the whole thing.
From what I can dig up, the Zhenchang company was originally founded in 1954 as the ‘Zhènchāng Timber Line 振昌木材行’ in Chiāyì City2 嘉義市 by wood magnate Sūn Hǎi 孫海, an already successful timber merchant who had made his fortune setting up a similar operation in Luódōng 羅東 6 years previous. In the midst of the country’s push towards full electrification and an expansion of the railway network at the time, the Chiayi outfit3 focussed primarily on chemical-based wood preservation, treating the telegraph poles and rail sleepers being produced with coal-tar creosote to increase their effective lifespan — a necessity in a country where the hot, humid climate would quickly make short work of any unprotected timber.
A successful bid to the Forestry Bureau 林務局 in 1958 to begin logging operations of the bountiful Dāndà Forest Region 丹大林區 on the mountainous edge of Nantou County, secured the rights for Zhenchang to harvest up to 5000 hectares of the Cypress and Eucalyptus covered mountainsides — enough to sustain an immense wood processing enterprise, for which the village of Checheng was the obvious choice. With ample flat ground, a water supply from the Shuili River 水里溪, and the Jíjí Railway 集集線4 providing a link to the Western Main Line 縱貫線 it was an ideal base of operations except in one respect: The forest compartment lay some 60km Southwest of the village, in a remote, scarcely-developed valley — treacherous enough to reach on foot, let alone by trucks and other heavy machinery5.
Evidently Sun considered the forest’s potential worth pouring NT$28,000,000 (an astronomical sum of money in 19586) into construction of the 68km, high-altitude Dāndá Forest Road 丹大林道, skirting the side of the mountains towards Hualien County 花蓮縣 and built wide enough for log-laden wagons to traverse7. Its Completion in only 4 short months, not only kickstarted a local economy that had likely stagnated following the closure of the nearby Puli Sugar Factory some 4 years previous (and for which Checheng had functioned as a transshipment point); but also decades of extensive deforestation that many in future generations would not look back too kindly on8.
In the boom years that followed, Checheng underwent a period of rapid industrial development, with the vast majority of residents ending up in the employ of the Zhenchang company and its ever-expanding array of wood processing facilities that sprang up within the village: sawmills, a log pond, charcoal kilns, and of course the Plywood Plant which ushered in yet another angle of business. This article suggests that, at its height, Zhenchang employed around 600 people from within Checheng itself, and as many as 3000 in total when taking into account associated logging staff, road maintenance engineers and the like9, effectively hinging the fate of an entire region on the company’s fortunes.
Much of the wood logged by Zhenchang was marked for export, with Japan receiving the lion’s share. A particularly famous example of where some of it ended up, is in the iconic entrance torii of Meiji Jingū 明治神宮 in Tokyo — destroyed by lightning in 1966, and then subsequently reconstructed 4 years later using a gigantic Cypress harvested from the Danda Forest10 — An intriguing connection, and one I was if course utterly oblivious to when I’d passed underneath it myself just a year previously.
Hai died in 1979 leaving his sons to inherit the various arms of the business, although the tipping point for Zhenchang came in the early 1980s when the remaining sections of forestry became increasingly difficult (and expensive) to reach and exploit. The proliferation of plastics in domains usually reserved for wood led to a reduction in consumer demand, and the problems caused by the excessive deforestation occurring nationwide started to become apparent, with incidents of major flooding on the rise as a result of the hillside’s diminished ability to retain water. A 1985 amendment to the Forest Act, introduced to counteract the effects, heavily restricted the harvesting of certain native tree species (including Cypress and Eucalyptus11) and reduced the company to a shadow of its former self — leaving most of the Checheng factories forsaken to dereliction and the whims of nature. It appears that, surprisingly, Zhenchang didn’t totally collapse as a result of this legal crackdown and still managed to maintain modestly sized operations in both Chiayi and Fēngyuán, for which it imported Malaysian and Indonesian sourced lumber via the ports at Kaohsiung.
The 921 Earthquake 九二一大地震 in 1999 seems to have been the driving factor in the company’s revival within Checheng in the early 2000s, as public money was poured into the Sun Moon Lake area to not only assist with the rebuilding of homes, businesses and infrastructure; but also to regenerate the local economy through the promotion of tourism. Sūn Guóxióng 孫國雄, the apparent leader of the Zhenchang siblings, appears to have taken full advantage of this, selling a large parcel of the land in Checheng (presumably the railway and station area) to the Tourism Bureau on the cheap, whilst retaining the rights to much of the rest of the village. Adopting the attitude of ‘If you build it, they will come’, the central sawmill husks were then reconstituted into a Zhenchang museum and store for some tourism incentive, with Guoxiong then able to reap the rewards when rising visitor numbers dictated the inrush of other business interests — restaurants, hotels .etc to set up shop on his retained holdings.
I won’t say I thought about all this whilst I was traipsing across concrete floors carpeted with decades-old sawdust in the decaying plywood plant — I usually do my research long after a visit, so I’m usually somewhat ignorant when mooching about trying to piece things together from only what’s in front of me — hence why this is being published 2 years after the fact! I did try though, to imagine what it would have been like here when production was in full swing — sweltering and deafening probably — with the entire valley reverberating from the industrious din produced by Zhenchang’s operations.
Certain buildings here have fared better than others, whose steel superstructures are now bent and torn in places, with some partially or altogether collapsed, and the machines therein — presumably weighing many tons — scattered and upturned at odd angles. I strongly suspect that the cause for this is neither natural decay, nor human intervention, but instead the effects of the aforementioned earthquake. 921 absolutely devastated central Taiwan, killing thousands and its epicentre lay just 10km to the East of Checheng. Given the proximity though, and the destruction wrought throughout the rest of Nantou, its absolutely remarkable that this place isn’t more trashed — possibly the steel framed skeletons running through many of the buildings absorbed the worst of the Earth’s undulations.
Skulking into the pressing room — where a behemoth of a hydraulic press would have sandwiched the laminates together after glueing — brought about a bizarre moment, when I entered from an adjacent area to come face to face with a young girl stood on a nearby staircase, wearing an elaborate dress in a shade of white that looked utterly pristine when juxtaposed against the surrounding decay. We just stared surprised at one another for several long seconds, in the way you have to when you encounter something so totally alien to your current environment (and as a foreigner I play a good alien). Eventually, I spotted the photographer nearby; my brain finally caught up, put two and two together, and after getting over the initial shock at meeting, we all exchanged hushed greetings before getting back to our respective businesses. You know you’re not exactly playing the intrepid explorer when sharing a space with the fashionistas!
Wandering into the largest of the plant’s warehouses was a definite highlight — the corrugated iron roof having been erratically disintegrated by the elements, causing some sections to fall, and others to form fractal-esque patterns in the remaining metalwork. Light has found its way in through the gaps and triggered the eruption of a veritable forest of greenery which has run rampant over the former factory floor, and my jaw definitely dropped upon coming across it. Not only is it a stunning, almost otherworldly scene, but oddly poetic — nature now reclaiming and breaking the very place it was once put to the sawblade, defiantly thriving as if, in a way, an inevitable justice has been served.
After I’d taken my fill of the place, a minutes walk soon found me back mingling with the chatting throngs of visitors in the carpark — One of the odd thrills of urban exploration for me, is that peculiar transition when you’ve been mere metres away from the general public, but effectively in another world. You can hear them faintly of course, their voices stripped of high-frequency definition — but they don’t know you’re there, scraping away at the history and the secrets. Rejoining the bustling outside world is kind of jarring in its immediacy, but exhilarating in its stark contrast. You can reappear from some quiet, dark corner and do normal person things: grab a bite to eat, do some shopping, visit a museum; with everyone around you none the wiser.
The future of this Zhenchang factory looks somewhat uncertain at the moment. There don’t appear to be any current rumours regarding its fate that I can find, but the remaining dilapidated warehouse structures are too far gone now for repurposing in any meaningful way and so I suspect that sooner or later, a major collapse will spur the company into demolishing them — possibly to be paved over into more parking space. The workshops are in much better condition, and given Zhenchang’s commitment to rebuilding those in the village centre, coupled with Checheng’s rising visitor numbers, I’d like to think that these would be shored up and given the museum treatment as some of the final, original remnants of the Zhenchang lumber empire.
This factory is well known in Taiwanese Urbex circles, and there are some great pieces out there (in Chinese) by the likes of Orange Dog 橘子狗, Greenset and Wwodstock. Here’s a great piece on the history of the Zhenchang company within Checheng, and another looking at the Sun family legacy and the company’s pivot to tourism. Finally, here is an interesting video covering the environmental impact that unsustainable and illegal logging practices have had along the Danda Forest Road. It’s worth a watch even just to see how narrow and hazardous the track leading into the forest compartment was (and still is).
- The name Checheng literally breaking down as car 車 yard 埕 and derived from the time when large numbers of Handcars 臺車 laden with sugar from the Puli Factory would sit idly in the village, awaiting transshipment to Èrshuǐ 二水 and beyond.
- Chiayi itself being another central tenet of the Taiwanese wood trade, containing a large number of workshops dedicated to processing the timber gathered from nearby Ālǐshān 阿里山鄉 which was transported via the purpose-built Alishan Forest Railway 阿里山林業鐵路.
- Known as the ‘Zhènchāng Wood Preservation Plant 振昌木材防腐工廠’ and located on what is now Bó’ài Road 博愛路. Like many of the wood factories in Taiwan, it apparently operated until the mid-1980s when sweeping legal reforms of the timber industry forced its eventual closure (though it did hang on for a time processing wood imported from abroad) and subsequent dereliction. Despite being shut down, the company was never officially dissolved — likely having something to do with lease agreements arranged with the Carrefour hypermarket chain, who set up both their own store and Chiā-Lè-Fú Night Market 嘉樂福夜市 on site when the plant was demolished in the early 2000s.
- This line was originally constructed in 1916 by Taisugar 台糖 to transport goods from their factory in Puli, to Ershui for further distribution, before being widened shortly after in 1919, to ferry construction materials to the ‘Sun Moon Lake First Power Station 日月潭第一發電所‘ hydroelectric project above being built above Checheng. Upon its completion, the railway continued to serve the sugar factory until its demise in 1954, as well as running limited passenger services that were sure to have been increased when Zhenchang set up shop and attracted an influx of workers to the area.
- The Japanese having already harvested the more easily accessible areas of forestry, a sizeable portion of which went towards the war effort — just in case you were wondering why Sun would want resources in such an inconvenient location.
- Although this article suggests that construction costs overshot even this figure, leaving Sun forced to seek additional assistance from his contacts at the Forestry Bureau, who apparently helped him in securing additional funding through the USAID program.
- Although Sun wouldn’t necessarily have been starting from scratch — The Guānmén Road 關門古道, a Qing Dynasty route beginning from Jiji, stretching all the way to Ruìsuì 瑞穗鄉 in Hualien County (crossing the heights of the Central Mountain Range 中央山脈 in the process), and at one point used by the Japanese to aid with their forced assimilation of the indigenous peoples in the area — would have served as a decent starting point, although widening it to support heavy road traffic would still have been a gargantuan task.
- See this rather scathing article for example.
- Although I’ve seen others that give figures of 2000 and anything in-between. Average them out and you’ll likely get something approaching the truth.
- This photo posted on Facebook purportedly depicts the very tree that’s now walked under by thousands of worshippers and tourists daily, sitting on the back of a truck apparently outfitted with a boat engine for extra power, and parked at the entry to the Danda Forest Road.
- Just a few years later in 1991, this would develop into a nationwide ban on the logging of natural forests, a change brought about in no small part, by journalist Lài Chūnbiāo’s 賴春標1987 exposé in Human Magazine 人間雜誌 of the illegal loggers (referred to rather unaffectionately as 山老鼠 or ‘mountain rats’) operating in the area.